Remember how the Grizzlies kept having all those easy games against weak competition, and they won every last one of them? Wasn’t that fun?! Well, lately, things have gotten much tougher for the Grizzlies, as they continue to face teams who they could easily end up seeing again in the playoffs. In the past week, they took on the Clippers (an excellent win), and the Nuggets (a brutally close loss), and tonight they face what may be their toughest task yet when they host the Oklahoma City Thunder at Fed Ex Forum.
The last team these two teams played, the Thunder emerged triumphant, but it wasn’t a fair fight. the Grizzlies had just completed the Rudy Gay trade, and the reinforcements haven’t arrived just yet. As a result, Memphis was severely shorthanded, and the Thunder took advantage, getting out to a huge lead very quickly. The Grizzlies attempted to mount a comeback, and Jerryd Bayless managed a thoroughly impressive 29 points, but it just wasn’t enough.
Now, with the Grizzlies new-look lineup firmly in place, they look to avenge that loss, and pick up their second win over the Thunder this season. Talking about how dangerous the Thunder are can be a bit boring, because there isn’t much to say that we haven’t known since 2010. Kevin Durant is a ridiculously talented player, probably the second most skilled in the league after LeBron James, and while the Grizzlies do have a surprising knack for rendering other teams best players ineffective (see the recent struggles of LeBron and LaMarcus Aldridge), stopping Durant will still be an extremely difficult task.
Durant was already an amazing player before this season, but he’s managed to improve his game considerably, specifically in the area of passing. He’s averaging 4.5 assists this year, a full assist higher than his previous career high. His shooting has looked better as well. Durant is shooting above .500 for the first time in his career, and if the season were to end today, he’d become the newest member of the 50/40/90 cub, which refers to players who shoot 50% from the field, 40% from downtown, and 90% from the free throw line in the same year. Just went it looked like Durant had reached his full potential, he somehow managed to get even better, and the grizzlies will have their hands tied tonight.
The other half of Oklahoma City’s dynamic duo is Russell Westbrook, who is having yet another great season. After a semi-rough start, in which his shooting was a bit off, Westbrook has been dominant once again. After seeing his assist total mysteriously drop to 5.5 last season, he’s back to 7.6 this year, continuing to be an excellent ball distributor. Whether or not the Grizzlies can force poor decisions from Westbrook will be key in determining whether they can emerge victorious tonight. We could conceivably see either Mike Conley or Tony Allen take up the duty of guarding him, and both are good at forcing errors. Allen’s penetrating defense can be immensely frustrating, while Conley’s ability to create turnovers is one of his strongest attributes.
In the front court, we’ll have to see what the next step in the Zbo-Perk feud is. These two clearly don’t like each other, and it would hardly be a shock to see some heated moments between the pair tonight. The true threat in the Thunder’s front court, however, is Serge Ibaka, a defensive beast who has become exponentially more valuable by honing his offensive game. He can beat you on either side of the ball, and he’s quickly becoming one of the top power forwards in the game. Seeing the big men on both these teams butt heads for 48 minutes promises to be thoroughly entertaining. We’ll see some great plays on offense, and probably a few rather strong disagreements as well.
On the bench, Kevin Martin has been solid in the 6th man role, doing the job James Harden did last season. He’s not as dynamic as Harden but he can put up points very quickly, and if the Grizzlies aren’t careful, he could prove to be deadly from beyond the arc. The Grizzlies strongest bench player is most likely Ed Davis, who is an excellent shot-blocker, and can put up double-doubles if he’s just given enough time. Quincy Pondexter is also highly valuable for his three-point skills, and Austin Daye can get hot now and then.
This will obviously not be an easy win for the Grizzlies. If they want to win, they need to force the thunder to play Memphis basketball. Make it a s low, ugly game, and force bad mistakes from veteran players who should know better. If the Grizzlies can do that, they just might pickup one of their biggest wins of the season.